Last week, Blackboard made two major announcements: first, they would be jumping on the MOOC bandwagon by creating their own MOOC platform (not a huge surprise); secondly, the company announced that it would be doubling or tripling its spending on software development. This seemed a bit more intriguing.

Jay Bhatt, Blackboard’s new president and CEO, explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education: “At the end of the day, we’re a product company, and we should embrace the fact that we are a great product company. But we’re also very much a teaching and learning company. So we need to double down on our core. We need to make teaching and learning the core focus of our development, and not just the way it manifests today but the way it’s going to manifest in eight years.”

For anyone who’s ever used Blackboard either as a teacher or a student, you know how unspectacular the learning management system (LMS) is. I therefore became a bit more excited because Bhatt identified correctly that the LMS needed to catch up and support teaching and learning more aggressively through a stronger investment in the technology.

And then Bhatt said this: “We’re supposed to be leading along a vector for education. We’re not going to invent the next paradigm for teaching and learning, but we’re going to facilitate that through technology platforms.”

It’s simply not enough for technology companies to be conceptualizing their role as mere facilitators of teaching. Blackboard’s been doing this for nearly two decades without affecting or altering the teaching and learning taking place within the classroom. If the company truly wishes to differentiate itself from other organizations, Blackboard will have to insert itself more directly in the conversation of “invent[ing] the next paradigm for teaching and learning.” As my colleagues Heather Staker and Michael Horn have recently explained with regards to integrating technology within the realm of K-12 education, even teacher training or professional development is not enough to make an enormous tech investment pay off.

Good technology must be oriented simultaneously around improving student-learning outcomes and enabling instructors to teach differently than they have been doing for years. There are plenty of platforms out there today that feature in slightly different ways the ancient form of the lecture. We don’t need more of the same. Some divide a 45-minute or longer lecture into 8-12 minute bite-sized chunks and follow up those sections with quizzes and exercises to assess the students’ understanding of the materials. That’s an improvement.

So what’s next? What can a learning platform do beyond facilitating this kind of interaction to get us out of the status quo of teaching and learning? Knewton offers an adaptive learning platform that tags all of the content from a publisher down to the sentence level in order to “push” bundles of content to their users and make recommendations as to what they should learn next. Altius Education uses storyboards to boost user engagement and attend to different learning styles. UniversityNow creates cohorts based on where students are within a course and crowdsources learning materials. The company also creates knowledge maps that understand the way students successfully master materials in the course. Desire2Learn aggregates diverse sets of content from library systems, partner institutions, open educational resources (OERs), and Creative Commons. The company uses predictive models about student success, looking at elements like social connectedness, collaboration, interactions online, and discussion participation to gain insight as to which students are likely to be at risk. This is all great. What’s next?

How will Blackboard improve upon what already exists and help teachers reinvent the classroom so that they’re attending to the right students at the time when they need the most encouragement, clarification, or intervention? How will Blackboard do more than create a shinier and sleeker version of itself? Any technology company intent on focusing on its LMS (ahem, Coursera) would do well to integrate what’s already been done and then ask: what next? How can we participate in creating a new paradigm for teaching and learning?






  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD